Kantara Souffrant and Robert Stein are two new senior leaders at the Museum as of January 2021. The positions that Souffrant and Stein were hired to fill, Curator of Community Dialogue and Deputy Director/Chief Experience Officer, respectively, are integral to the Museum’s Strategic Direction, which, in short, outlines the work the Museum is committed to doing to ensure that everyone in the community feels welcome. Souffrant and Stein recently connected over Zoom to discuss their roles in designing experiences that not only connect people to the art and each other, but also unfold across the galleries, online at home, and out in our neighborhoods.
Kantara Souffrant, PhD, is a museum educator, artist-scholar, and curator who has worked across academia and the nonprofit sector in the pursuit of arts-based social justice and public education. Souffrant previously worked at the Museum, from 2015 to 2018, as Manager of School and Teacher programs.
Robert Stein is a career museum professional. He has held posts at the Dallas Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and most recently, the Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago, where he helped develop immersive and multisensory in-gallery experiences and new virtual platforms for digital learning.
With a bit of prompting from the questions I put to them, Souffrant and Stein spoke broadly about their visions for the Museum. They discussed art as a means for advancing understanding and inclusion, and the role museums and art can play in cultural evolution. Their discussion has been edited for length.
How does one begin to create experiences with art that are relevant to all people and bring a sense of connection?
Kantara Souffrant: First we have to understand the Museum as part of a larger ecosystem. The need for evolution is not isolated to how the Museum functions: it’s tied to how our society functions, and to the health of our city. That means being in conversation with the policies and practices that inhibit the freedom of other people.
Robert Stein: Yes, and we have some work to do before all people in Milwaukee feel that it is equally easy for them to show up at the Museum and contribute to each other in conversation. How do we give permission to people that there are moments to be loud and laugh, as well as silent and reflective?
KS: We have to model that. We’re going to need multiple interactions with people of color, including Black, Indigeous, Latinx, and Asian-descended audience members, for them to trust that they can be as free as they want to be in the Museum. This may be especially true for people in our community with darker skin, who are used to being policed in public spaces because of their sound, dress, and race. We have to work on our own biases and on how to be more inclusive toward various ways of being.
RS: As a white man growing up in America, I have not experienced the racism that impacts so many. I think that museums, that art, can help us see life through another person’s perspective and create experiences that can be life changing.
KS: I’m a person of Haitian descent, and the Museum’s Haitian art collection, for example, may be the only encounter people have with Haiti; we must use that moment to provide new modes for reinterpreting how we imagine Haiti and, by extension, Black people.
RS: So many of our public spaces are segregated—in wealth, race, background, language, age—and it’s hard to be around and get to know people who are different from you in those circumstances. Museums have a promise to be different than that.
How can art be used as a tool to further connection, empathy, and understanding?
KS: Using art as a vehicle for sharing new information about a country and people who have been historically misrepresented, then and now, is powerful. Art, in my opinion, is a more accessible, diplomatic, and democratic means for talking about ideas that people may feel uncomfortable engaging with. To talk about a news article may make people combative and defensive, each side hoping to prove they are “right.” In engaging with art, viewers are literally mediating their idea through this incredible, visceral aesthetic moment. On a tour, people are able to simultaneously learn new concepts and have these vulnerable moments together through a work of art.
RS: The public has this interesting, conflicting relationship with works of art. There’s an innate understanding that it’s ok to have your own opinion and interpretation about a work of art, but there are also facts and an authoritative story behind each work. What I’ve always found engaging about visiting art museums is where those two things intersect. I may have an impression or opinion of a work of art that is completely ignorant of its true story, and there’s joy that you can experience in uncovering that. How many things in this world do you actually find joy in being surprised and proven wrong by them? That is something special that works of art can do.
Furthermore, I’m always fascinated and challenged by how to create multigenerational experiences. Students come on school tours; other tours and lectures are held on the weekdays so are often heavily attended by retirees; and family programming is often held on Saturdays and Sundays. I think people of different generations can, and often do, learn a lot from each other when we create a circumstance when they can exist in a space together.
KS: Opportunities for intergenerational learning acknowledge the fact that everyone is a knowledge-maker and has information to contribute to a work of art. Everyone is a vessel for knowledge distribution, regardless of their age or experience. In my conversations with community partners, we’ve been talking about what it means to have a holistic relationship with the Museum: the Museum as a backdrop of my experiences from cradle to elder, as a long-term cultural landmark in someone’s personal experience.
How can we promote more of a feeling of freedom at the Museum for visitors?
KS: The first thing that I saw when I first visited the Museum was a group of moms in Windhover Hall with their babies on the floor. I said to my friend, “What is this place?! This is a Museum?!” For me, seeing that image let me know, “Oh, the Milwaukee Art Museum is a place where kids can be kids, and moms can be moms.” I want the Museum to be a co-builder in actualizing freedom, for all bodies, across our city and within our galleries.
RS: Sometimes I think museums get hung up on access programs being about financial freedom to attend. It’s definitely a barrier for participation but not the only barrier, and maybe not even the biggest barrier. There’s this rote, very quiet idea of what it means to visit an art museum. But there are so many ways to use an art museum that are outside of that.
KS: Museums have been situated as elite places, the assumption often being that you have to have a particular set of knowledge or be in a particular income bracket to access them. Rather than considering the question, What kind of Museum do we want to create? I suggest asking, What kind of city do we want to live in? This is the question that can shape our institution—one that reflects the city we desire and can manifest. To think about and position the Museum as a space that is shaped by and also shapes people.
Is there anything you wish to say to Museum Members?
KS: I want to remind them that partnership is at the center of what I do, and their visions help shape the direction of the Museum. They should play an active hand in doing that, and also be mindful of the kind of legacy they want to leave behind in our city.
We should think of Members and future Museum Members as our neighbors and the people with whom we can co-create our city and our Museum. What kind of neighbor do you want to be? How do you want to support the people who live alongside you in accessing their best possible lives?
RS: The support that Members provide financially but also socially and politically in the city, as advocates and citizens, is what will enable any of this change to happen.
Elisabeth Gasparka is the Development Officer for Membership within the Development Department at the Museum. She crafts Member communications, plans and oversees Member events, and manages relationships with external partners, including through the Neighborhood Discount Program.